As this is my first posted question, I welcome input as to how to improve it. Many thanks in advance.

When I have heard Mahayana practitioners discuss the concept of Bodhisatva as it varies from Theravadan teachings, it's spoken of as a mark against Theravada. It's suggested that Theravada lacks compassion for others, and that the Bodhisatva ideal "repairs" this lack of compassion.

When I consider this idea, I can't escape the feeling that the concept of a Bodhisatva ("me") helping "others" seems contrary to the idea of anattā. The idea that I would focus on self-ness (either my own or that of another) seems like a mistaken view. Instead, when I think of suffering, I think that, "there is suffering," not that "I am suffering" or "they are suffering." As such, the Bodhisatva concept seems to guide my thinking away from what I believe is Buddha's teacing of correct understanding.

As to lack of compassion... my thinking is that the work I do in my practice is meant to reduce suffering. Not to reduce my suffering and ignore that of others, but to reduce suffering itself.

And so my question is this: Am I understanding the pieces of this correctly? I realize some here adhere to different parts of this issue, and I appreciate feedback from both sides. Perhaps someone can explain how they think of the idea of "no-self" as it related to the Bodhisatva idea?


4 Answers 4


The lines between helping the self and helping others haven't always been very clear even to accomplished masters of either tradition, for example, this is from Huang Po,

Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva's progress toward Buddhahood, one by one; when at last, in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha-Nature which has been with you all the time; and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all.


Then there is of course the position that the very idea of a Bodhisattva way of life isn't a purely Mahayana experiment.

There is a wide-spread belief, particularly in the West, that the ideal of the Theravada, which they conveniently identify with Hinayana, is to become an Arahant while that of the Mahayana is to become a Bodhisattva and finally to attain the state of a Buddha. It must be categorically stated that this is incorrect. This idea was spread by some early Orientalists at a time when Buddhist studies were beginning in the West, and the others who followed them accepted it without taking the trouble to go into the problem by examining the texts and living traditions in Buddhist countries. But the fact is that both the Theravada and the Mahayana unanimously accept the Bodhisattva ideal as the highest.


When one has gone beyond the idea of self in either case, where does the I end and the We begin?


This is related to this question.

The anatta concept doesn't say that there is no self - it says "not self" as in "all phenomena is not self". There is a self, but it is not permanent and is not independent from the inter-workings of the senses, sensation, perception, mind and consciousness.

For e.g. a static image that is projected on the wall - it is a result of light projected onto a wall from a projector. If you dig deeper, you can explain how a projector works, how electronics and electricity works. The image does not exist permanently and independently from the wall or projector or electricity. But this does not mean that the image does not exist. Surely it exists.

Also, to quote this answer, anatta relates to absolute truth, however, the self that exists relates to relative truth.

While you have not yet attained Nirvana (Bodhisattvas included), suffering is still experienced, hence the self still persists and rebirth continues to take place. When you knock your head on the wall and say "ouch", you know that you are still subject to suffering.

In the Acela Sutta, Kassapa asks the Buddha whether the suffering that one experiences, is caused by oneself, is caused by another, is caused both by oneself and another, is not caused by oneself or another but arises spontaneously, or it doesn't exist? The Buddha says that suffering exists, but it is not useful for us to speculate "who" ultimately caused it, from the perspective of absolute truth. If the self caused the suffering, then it is the eternalistic argument. If no one caused it, then it is the nihilistic argument. But instead, the Buddha taught Kassapa the middle path, which is dependent origination.

So, it is also not as easy as there is no self at all, or that there is definitely a self, and trying to link the effort to liberate oneself or other beings to one of these. Rather, the Buddha prefers us to ignore that part ("Don't say that, Kassapa") and focus on dependent origination.

Compassion by itself can be a contributor towards liberation from suffering according to the Nissaraniya Sutta:

It's impossible, there is no way that — when compassion has been developed, pursued, handed the reins and taken as a basis, given a grounding, steadied, consolidated, and well-undertaken as an awareness-release — viciousness would still keep overpowering the mind. That possibility doesn't exist, for this is the escape from viciousness: compassion as an awareness-release.'

I don't think Theravada lacks compassion, as it teaches the practice of the Brahmaviharas. But is it selfish to liberate oneself before trying to liberate others? Well, I think in Theravada there are the four stages of enlightenment (which can last up to 7 births from the first stage), plus an Arahant can continue to teach, till parinibbana, so there is still plenty of chance for one to contribute towards the liberation of others, but not quite till the hells are empty.

  • Thank you for your discussion! I understand the anatta is not "no-self," but I think that it suggests that thoughts of "self" are ultimately empty and meaningless. As per the the answer you linked, thoughts of "self" are meaningless at the level of ultimate truth. Therein lies my confusion. It seems as though the Bodhisatva idea is encouraging attachment to the concept of "self," which is meaningless in the realm of ultimate truth. Does that not suggest that the idea of Bodhisatva is, itself, meaningless in the realm of ultimate truth?
    – Zefareu
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 16:01
  • 1
    The idea of Bodhisattva is meaningful in the realm of relative truth and suffering, as long as you are still subject to it.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 16:15

One idea is that having a view-of-self is conducive to suffering (viewing a conditioned, impermanent and unsatisfactory thing as "self"), and therefore it's better to choose to develop a view of non-self.

One way to practice this view, is to view yourself as being like others (and others as being like yourself): because that avoids (or tries to avoid) putting undue emphasis on "me".

Perhaps a view like this (i.e "treat others as yourself, with compassion") is common to many human cultures: see Golden Rule.

If "you" wanted to attain liberation and you're eventually successful, don't you think it makes sense to help others do the same? If a bodhisattva is defined as one who has Bodhicitta, don't you find that's identical to the thought process of the Buddha soon after he attained his enlightenment?

Ayacana Sutta

Then the Blessed One, having understood Brahma's invitation, out of compassion for beings, surveyed the world with the eye of an Awakened One. As he did so, he saw beings with little dust in their eyes [etc.]

Maybe the view of "emptiness" is to help you avoid clinging to the world: but it would be going too far, it would be untrue to say, "there are no sentient beings in the world, who suffer and want enlightenment."

  • Beware that this is all my guess and that I have little knowledge about Mahayana.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 15:06
  • Thank you! Yes, I see the point of helping others, but it seems that "others" is a misunderstanding of ultimate truth. "Me" and "others" isn't the point -- the point is "suffering" itself. As such, as I work to eliminate suffering, I am, in fact, helping "others." Developing a view of "no-self" is, I think, equally mistaken, as I think the point is that "self" and "no-self" are meaningless in the realm of ultimate truth. ... Having said that, I'm still chewing on all this! Thank you for your thoughts.
    – Zefareu
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 15:57
  • Does this help? IMO it suggests that "there are no 'others'" is wrong view; and that there are two types of right view: one is "good actions" etc.; and the other is "noble and without effluents" (where "effluent" is maybe described in this answer).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 19, 2015 at 0:06

As to the first paragraph regarding selfishness of Theravada, I would say it's wrong view or misunderstanding from the Mahayana counter part as my explanations later would show.

As to the second paragraph regarding compassion to oneself & others and difference between Mahayana and Theravada see my post there.

The middle way is seeing both ultimate & conventional reality and acting according to the reality of the situation, depending on personal characteristics. Acting according to just either one of realities is an extreme.

When true compassion arises in one there is only concern for the relieving of suffering of the other, there isn't a sense of self that I'm doing this, but rather this needs to be done.

And for an accomplished person, an Anagami (whose sense of self is much reduced) and higher, there isn't a feeling of one doing it, nor is there a sense of achievement, but for lesser beings: feel-good to pride.

So Theravadin Anagamis and above are true Bodhisattvas, but there's one caveat: most of those who chose the Theravadin path have concerns for me first others second, characteristics, make-up or tendencies. Those whose tendencies are others first and me second, are attracted to the Mahayana paths.


One of the suttas says, there are four types of persons:

1) One who does no good to himself or others. ( probably won't practice)

2) One who does good for himself and not for others. ( will probably choose Theravada)

3) One who does good for others but not for himself. ( Will probably choose Mahayana )

4) One who does good for others and himself. ( Accomplished persons).

  • What sutta is this you're referencing ? I'm assuming there aren't the quotations after the list of the four type of people and this was your addition? I would have to disagree; A person who ordains, regardless as a Theravada or Mahayana monk will generally be doing good for both themselves and for others, as the two are very much mutually exclusive. Unless you have evil intention, you can't help others and not help yourself, and vice versa.
    – Ryan
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 21:39
  • When you help others, you help yourself by bettering yourself. When you help yourself, you're doing a favor to others by being a better person yourself.
    – Ryan
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 21:42
  • Also, a Bodhisattva in the Mahayana tradition is one who takes up the direction of becoming a Buddha, so as far as the Theravada is concerned, Anagamis and Arahants are NOT equivalent to this.
    – Ryan
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 21:44
  • @Ryan The referenced sutta sounds like A ii 94
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 21:50
  • 2
    Samadhi might you be able to answer the question without making generalizations about "Theravada is chosen by people who are me-first" and "Mahayana is attractive to people who are others-first"? Is it possible that's a stereotype that's not worth perpetuating, and isn't needed in order to answer the question?
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jun 18, 2015 at 21:56

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .